Voyage to Cythera
Charles Baudelaire, 1821 – 1867
Free as a bird and joyfully my heart
Soared up among the rigging, in and out;
Under a cloudless sky the ship rolled on
Like an angel drunk with brilliant sun.
“That dark, grim island there–which would that be?”
“Cythera,” we’re told, “the legendary isle
Old bachelors tell stories of and smile.
There’s really not much to it, you can see.”
O place of many a mystic sacrament!
Archaic Aphrodite’s splendid shade
Lingers above your waters like a scent
Infusing spirits with an amorous mood.
Worshipped from of old by every nation,
Myrtle-green isle, where each new bud discloses
Sighs of souls in loving adoration
Breathing like incense from a bank of roses
Or like a dove roo-cooing endlessly . . .
No; Cythera was a poor infertile rock,
A stony desert harrowed by the shriek
Of gulls. And yet there was something to see:
This was no temple deep in flowers and trees
With a young priestess moving to and fro,
Her body heated by a secret glow,
Her robe half-opening to every breeze;
But coasting nearer, close enough to land
To scatter flocks of birds as we passed by,
We saw a tall cypress-shaped thing at hand–
A triple gibbet black against the sky.
Ferocious birds, each perched on its own meal,
Were madly tearing at the thing that hung
And ripened; each, its filthy beak a drill,
Made little bleeding holes to root among.
The eyes were hollowed. Heavy guts cascading
Flowed like water halfway down the thighs;
The torturers, though gorged on these vile joys,
Had also put their beaks to use castrating
The corpse. A pack of dogs beneath its feet,
Their muzzles lifted, whirled and snapped and gnawed;
One bigger beast amidst this jealous lot
Looked like an executioner with his guard.
O Cytherean, child of this fair clime,
Silently you suffered these attacks,
Paying the penalty for whatever acts
Of infamy had kept you from a tomb.
Grotesquely dangling, somehow you brought on–
Violent as vomit rising from the chest,
Strong as a river bilious to taste–
A flow of sufferings I’d thought long gone.
Confronted with such dear remembered freight,
Poor devil, now it was my turn to feel
A panther’s slavering jaws, a beak’s cruel drill–
Once it was my flesh they loved to eat.
The sky was lovely, and the sea divine,
but something thick and binding like a shroud
Wrapped my heart in layers of black and blood;
Henceforth this allegory would be mine.
O Venus! On your isle what did I see
But my own image on the gallows tree?
O God, give me the strength to contemplate
My own heart, my own body without hate!
Echoing Poe’s Masque of the Red Death, with its climactic phantom in a bloody burial shroud, Baudelaire’s poem defines the central leitmotif of decadent closure: the sacrifice and mutilation of the male poet by an erotic and violent natural order over which he has no control, and to which he willingly and passively seeks out his doom. In this world nature is both violent and death ridden, a realm of the Sadean jouissance rather than of some High Romantic Sublime. A realm where terror and dread run riot over Rousseauian notions of beauty and moral goodness. A realm of vital monstrosity that is both inhuman and beyond any form of normative statement. The natural order is amoral and catastrophic where humans are but the base line of a strange and hellish paradise of pure evil. Yet, this evil has nothing to do with moral or religious evil, but is rather the power of sheer sex and violence, eros and thanatos the twin drives at the heart of the Real. Against this truth humans have built the lies of civilization to defend themselves from what Nietzsche once described as the Dionysian.
Unlike capitalist civilization that has treated the natural world as if it were a passive female to be raped and plundered of its resources, the decadents strove to revitalize the ancient chthonian cult of violent nature where chaos and night prevail rather than some inane order of Reason. As we move into an age of climate change, as we enter the time of the Sixth Extinction, as we wonder why the world of men cannot create a peaceful civilization we should remember that the universe is not a benign place. It is violent and impersonal. A realm that would just as soon swat us like flies upon the table of eternal night without blinking. We live by lies and fictions that have thrown an illusory façade of beauty and goodness upon the face of the natural order where there is none. We will pay the price of our foolishness. Nature could not care less about our moral norms and imperatives; it has none.
“A Voyage to Cythera” moves from innocence to experience and from High to Late Romanticism. Its first illusion is about nature, which seems benign. The poet, misled by Rousseau, thinks of green myrtle and blooming flowers. But nature’s reality is Sadean, red in tooth and claw. Odysseus, tied to the mast, sees piles of moldering skeletons littering the island of the Sirens. Baudelaire’s lustful priestess, wandering a temple grove, belongs to the pagan era, which integrated sex with religion. Christianity, on the other hand, afflicts humanity with chronic guilt. The gallows is the crucifix, desolating the sexual world. It is also the tree of nature, a black cypress against the sky. Man is crucified upon his own body. Nature is a Decadent tree loaded with rotten fruit, a “ripe” corpse bursting its skin and dribbling foul matter.1
The poem is a portrait of the artist as ritual victim where the poet confronts his physically degenerated double, as Dorian Gray is to do with his corroded portrait. In “A Carcass,” Baudelaire forces his beloved to confront her own double, a putrefying animal carcass, which omnipotent nature exploits to feed her microbes, parasites, and beasts. The poem is a kind of déjeuner sur l’herbe: nature is dining at home! The animal’s gender and identity and even its integrity as an object are receding. It is being reduced to primary materials, much as Sade’s victims are rent and abraded into subhuman particles. The teeming maggots are a prophetic vision of inanimate nature-process or matter in molecular wave-motion. Baudelaire’s “strange music” is also heard in Melville’s Moby-Dick, where a tropical grove hums like the loom of vegetable nature. (Paglia, 424)
Nature’s brute physicality brings both the sun and the dark night of the world into proximity. It distributes joy and sorrow in equal amounts and shows forth no favoritism among its dark children: it slaughters one and all in a formidable cycle of organic cannibalism. Death, forcing the beloved to imitate the animal’s deconstruction, will make her surrender gender, identity, and coherence. It is this primitive spectacle of degeneration that arouses the poet— an a priori necrophilia. The proud beloved will be raped by dominatrix mother nature, the jealous fanged bitch waiting in the shadows. (Paglia, p. 425).
- Paglia, Camille (1990-09-10). Sexual Personae (p. 423). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.